As East Africa reels from the worst locust infestation in decades, farmers dealing with crop devastation said the country could face food shortages.
Pictures and video of the creatures casting huge shadows over fields and homes may look like they come from a disaster movie, but the swarms – sometimes up to a billion locusts strong – are having a real impact on the people.
"We were so shocked and tried to save our land from the attacks, but that didn't work as they were too many," Assefa Alemu, a father of six and maize farmer from Wollo in the Ethiopian state of Amhara, told The National.
"They have damaged our crops that were ready to be harvested. I now have nothing to feed my children," he said.
Mr Alemu is not alone. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has termed the infestation the "worst situation in 25 years" in the Horn of Africa, exacerbating an already deteriorating food insecurity situation in the area.
“Currently, 25.5 million people in Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda are already suffering from hunger and severe malnutrition," said Lydia Zigomo, the regional director of Oxfam in Horn, East and Central Africa.
"These infestations of hundreds of millions of locusts need to be quickly contained before the next main cropping season of March to July," she said.
Desert locusts are a species of grasshopper that live largely solitary lives until a combination of conditions promote breeding and lead them to form massive swarms.
Locusts devour their own weight in food per day – about two grams – and are able to cover 150 kilometres a day.
The current swarms have feasted on more than 235,000 hectares of land since the end of July.
The Ethiopian government confirmed the pests have now spread to around 125 districts in the country, up from 56 in October.
Authorities said the conflict in Yemen and climate change have exacerbated the problem this year.
"The swarms spread to Ethiopia and some East African countries because of the lack of capacity of authorities in Yemen to apply survey and control mechanisms," said Felege Elias, senior information and forecasting expert at the Desert Locust Control Organisation for Eastern Africa.
Recent rainy weather in East Africa, driven by climate change, has also created favourable conditions for rapid locust reproduction.
Left unchecked, the numbers of the crop-devouring insects in Ethiopia could grow by 500 times by June 2020, the FAO said in its monthly locust bulletin.
The invasion could lead to a considerable drop in agricultural production, livestock feed and forest cover, compromising livelihoods and food security in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries, a representative from the FAO in Ethiopia told The National.
A one-square-km swarm can consume crops that could feed 35,000 people in one day, the FAO said.
Such swarms are destroying rural livelihoods in their relentless drive to eat and reproduce, the FAO said. This situation is exacerbated by heavy rainfall and green vegetation, which encourage breeding that could last well into the cropping season.
So far, about 485,000ha of land have been targeted for rapid locust control across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. The latter declared the infestation a national emergency this week.
The UN has so far given $10m (Dh36.7m) to the FAO to scale up aerial spraying and ground control operations in areas that are most at risk.
Somalia has the use of just two agricultural aircraft to spray pesticide to control the locust population while Ethiopia has just three.
Despite the aerial operations and traditional techniques like making noise to prevent locusts from landing on crops, the FAO confirmed some of the swarms are maturing while others are moving south and west into the southern parts of Ethiopia.
At least one swarm has reached the edge of the Rift Valley in Ethiopia's Southern Nations Nationalities and People Region, an area that produces 29m metric tonnes of crops annually. The area accounts for close to 10 per cent of the country's total crop production and is a leading producer of fruit and vegetables.
"The political instability in some areas, coupled with the untimely rain and humidity in the past two months, have created favourable conditions for the locust to spread and this has undermined our efforts to control the plague," said Zebidos Selato, public health director in Ethiopia's Ministry of Agriculture.
“Yet, as harvesting had been done early in fear of the spread of the locust, we have greatly minimised damage caused by the infestation of swarms. We are studying to quantify the damage it has caused so far, but surely it is very insignificant.”
Germame Garuma, director of the Agriculture Extension programme at Ethiopia's agriculture ministry, also downplayed the impact the swarms on food insecurity.
“Ethiopia has enough agricultural production to continue to be self sufficient. There is no threat of further food insecurity because of locust invasion,” he said.
“But we can't say the locusts did not bring any damage.”
Henok Tadesse, a farmer in Ethiopia’s northern Amhara region, said harvesting early didn’t help his situation.
"When I heard that the locusts were attacking other parts of Ethiopia, I started harvesting much earlier than anticipated," he said.
"I stored what I had near my farm since I do not have a proper warehouse. However, the locusts partially consumed it when they attacked crops in this area."
Last year, the Ethiopian government and its humanitarian partners appealed for aid worth over $1 billion to help eight million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
Shortly after, the government released its first Integrated Food Security Phase Classification analysis report and said about 8.5m people are expected to require food aid in the first half of 2020.